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Bernini, Bust of Medusa

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bust of Medusa, marble, c. 1644-48 (Capitoline Museum)

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker


Medusa, one of the three Gorgons, daughter of Phorcys and Ceto. She was the only one of the Gorgons who was subject to mortality. She is celebrated for her personal charms and the beauty of her locks. Neptune became enamoured of her, and obtained her favours in the temple of Minerva. This violation of the sanctity of the temple provoked Minerva, and she changed the beautiful locks of Medusa, which had inspired Neptune’s love to serpents.

According to Apollodorus, Medusa and her sisters came into the world with snakes on their heads, instead of hair, with yellow wings and brazen hands. Their bodies were also covered with impenetrable scales, and their very looks had the power of killing or turning to stones. Perseus rendered his name immortal by his conquest of Medusa. He cut off her head, and the blood that dropped from the wound produced the innumerable serpents that infest Africa. The conqueror placed Medusa's head on the shield of Minerva, which he had used in his expedition. The head still retained the same petrifying power as before, as it was fatally known in the court of Cepheus. . . . Some suppose that the Gorgons were a nation of women, whom Perseus conquered.(From Lempriére’s Classical Dictionary of Proper names mentioned in Ancient Authors Writ Large. Ed. J. Lempriére and F.A. Wright. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. As quoted by Modern American Poetry site, Department of English, University of Illinois)

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: We're in the Capitoline Museums in Rome and we're looking at this gorgeous little sculpture, this bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Dr. Harris: It's not really little. Her head looks life size or maybe even slightly larger. Dr. Zucker: Yeah, it is, you're right. It's bigger than life, but I guess after looking at the massive Marcus Aurelius (crosstalk) Dr. Harris: It's a bust. Dr. Zucker: But you're right, it's larger than life and it's of Medusa, so this is a Greek myth. She was one of the three Gorgon Sisters, as portrayed by the Greeks as a monster, who had hair - Dr. Harris: Made of snakes. Dr. Zucker: Snakes, yeah, and here they're writhing. Dr. Harris: And whose gaze turned men to stone, is that right? Dr. Zucker: Yes and in fact, when Perseus beheads her, he uses the reflection in his shield, so that he can attack her without (crosstalk) Dr. Harris: She even, in the 19th century, comes to represent a femme fatale, dangerous. Dr. Zucker: That's right. Dr. Harris: Woman. But here she's depicted so sympathetically. Dr. Zucker: It may be the only time I've seen her less as a threat and more as almost a kind of victim. Dr. Harris: She's so baroque in that she's making this expression that looks very momentary. We've caught her making this expression on her face and this captured sense of time. Because of the realism of the face and this expression, it makes you ... I want to make the expression on her face, of opening my mouth and pushing my brows together and up and as soon as I do that, you get this feeling of being very vulnerable and frightened, almost. Dr. Zucker: She's terrified of herself here. Dr. Harris: Yeah. Dr. Zucker: Imagine what it must feel like to have those snakes writhing around your head always. Dr. Harris: And have anyone who looks at you - Dr. Zucker: Turn to stone. Dr. Harris: What a lonely and terrible existence. These writhing snakes that Bernini has left rather raw, compared with the polish that he's depicted her face with. Dr. Zucker: It's true, he's really smoothed the face, so it's got this brilliant sheen on especially those lips, which almost look wet, so this tension between the monster that she is and there's a humanity that suffers from that. Dr. Harris: The light and the shadow because of the drilling and the depth of the carving of the snakes around her face. Dr. Zucker: That's right, like Michelangelo carving so deeply into the mouth, even. There's no need to carve that deeply, except to create those shadows and those contrasts, then, between light and dark. Look at the depth of those brows. The exaggeration of the nose and the lips and the chin. Dr. Harris: There's an exaggeration in her expression. Dr. Zucker: There is, which makes it all the more powerful, all the more theatrical, all the more baroque. Dr. Harris: The more poignant. (jazz music)